America’s Work Ethic Is Under Assault


The work ethic is the most important engine of capitalist civilization. It allows workers to work long after their basic needs are met, encourages entrepreneurs to start new businesses and inventors to invent new things, and generally creates a surplus that pays for productive investment and social welfare.

However, the belief that work is more of a moral duty than an unpleasant necessity is not natural. In most civilizations, social status was determined by your distance from productive work—aristocrats in Naples even lost their patents of nobility if they were caught doing anything useful—while laborers abandoned the grindstone for the pub at the slightest opportunity.

Ever since Max Weber published his landmark The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), historians have debated his claim that Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist form, was responsible for the rise of capitalism because it held hard work and the accumulation of wealth as evidence. salvation. But they largely agreed with the basic idea that the rise of capitalism required a revolution in the relationship to work.

Which raises a troubling proposition: if the work ethic is a product of cultural change, it can be destroyed by cultural change. America is the world’s leading example of the power of the work ethic. The North was populated by work-obsessed Puritans fleeing persecution in England (the South was populated by cavaliers who despised work and relied on slave labor for leisure). Benjamin Franklin coined the aphorisms that time is money and early to bed and early to rise is the secret of wealth and wisdom. Horatio Alger insisted that anyone can succeed if they work hard. Immigrants came to the United States by the millions, hoping that hard work and self-reliance would finally pay off.

Somehow this culture still survives. Americans work longer than Europeans and take significantly shorter vacations. The month-long summer vacation, which the French consider a right, seems to many Americans a form of decadence. High-earning Americans in the legal, banking and executive fields routinely work more than 50 hours a week, some of them more than 100.

However, this dedication to work is eroding at the edges and increasingly at the center. The U.S. labor force participation rate—the share of working-age citizens who are working or actively looking for work—has fallen from a high of 67.5% at the turn of the century to 62.3%. “The work ethic in the U.S. is really strong and healthy,” Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute quipped to me in an interview, “except where it’s not.”

The post-labor revolution was led by men without college degrees. In Men Out of Work, first published in 2016 and revised in 2022, Eberstadt provides some startling statistics about the number of prime-age men (25 to 64) who have dropped out of the labor market. More than 11% of these men – about seven million souls – are neither working nor looking for work. Barely half of men born in prime age without secondary education are on the labor market. The number of those not in the labor force has increased by a percentage point every seven years since 1965, regardless of the state of the economy or the number of job vacancies.

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The Covid pandemic has spread the labor revolution to new groups – hence all the talk of the “Great Resignation” and “Quiet Quitting.” Many older Americans have decided to bring their retirement forward by cashing out their 401k plans and/or selling their overpriced real estate and moving to a cheaper Valhalla: 1.75 million baby boomers will retire in 2021 compared to a million in an average year. Some prime-age workers (especially women) have decided during their vacation that it’s not worth bothering to go to work if most of your income is spent on caring for children or elderly parents.

The most worrying thing is the changing attitude towards work among young people. A 2010 Pew Research Center report sounded the alarm when it found that three-quarters of respondents said older people have a better work ethic than younger people—a belief they hold just as strongly as their elders. Since then, evidence of disappointment has piled up. Employers report that millennials are more likely to view work as a means of self-fulfillment rather than just a source of income. Anti-labor activists cite appalling corporate practices on Reddit, praise The Right to be Lazy (1883) by Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law, debate the relative merits of “anger firing” versus “quiet firing,” and espouse the virtues of a universal basic income that eliminates the need for work at all.

This revolt against work is clearly worrisome on economic grounds: it reduces the overall productivity of the economy and leaves urgent jobs undone. It is also demoralizing. When asked how one can succeed, Sigmund Freud replied: “Love and work…work and love, that is all there is…love and work are the foundations of our humanity.” Time-use studies of men who have dropped out of the labor market show that most of their abundant “social, relaxation, and leisure time” (as defined by the American Time Use Survey) is spent in front of a screen, either watching television. or playing video games. Similar studies of early retirees also show massive amounts of screen time.

So how should we explain the trend? And how do we turn it around? More specific interpretations require specific solutions. The opioid epidemic has destroyed lives across the country. Poor health and obesity make it harder for people to keep a job. Disability rules discourage retraining. Ex-convicts struggle to reenter the workforce, but nearly one in eight American men have been in prison. Addressing the opioid crisis and addressing prison insanity will also help address the jobs crisis. The problem of early retirement may be resolving itself as retirees discover that they do not have as much to live on as they had previously expected. But the problem also has deeper cultural roots that require deeper digging if we want to uproot them. Start with two famous paradoxes about the nature of capitalism.

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Joseph Schumpeter argued in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) that capitalism produces its own gravediggers in the form of permanent status intellectuals who eat the fruits of capitalism while devoting their energy to condemning its evils. This problem has now reached an extreme that would even surprise a person who survived the collapse of Austria-Hungary. It’s not just that liberal academics and administrators outnumber conservatives because of widening margins in the humanities, and that a more “advanced” mindset has taken hold in liberal ranks. The point is that this progressive mindset is now also on the rise among professors at traditionally professional institutions such as law and business schools. While Harvard Business School students were once taught that their sole duty was to maximize shareholder value, they are now learning that they must rethink capitalism in a world on fire.

Daniel Bell took the argument further in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) by arguing that capitalism undermines itself by producing so much wealth. If the Puritan work ethic depended on self-denial to create the surplus necessary for prosperity, the affluent society depended on endless consumption and instant gratification, which destroyed the fundamental virtues of frugality and sobriety. In the first decade of the century, banks convinced so many people to take out loans they could not afford that the banking system nearly collapsed. Now, Big Marijuana is pushing a drug that demotivates Americans, posing a particular danger to those who are only loosely connected to the job market. Is this pervasive smell in America’s big cities the smell of sensible liberal drug policy? Or is it the smell of the American work ethic gone up in smoke?

I would add something of my own to these two classic paradoxes. One is the paradox of opportunity. The neoliberal revolution was justified by the idea that people have the right to rise as high as their talents allow them without paying an unjustified amount of money back to the state in the form of income or inheritance tax. But the resulting explosion of inequality undermines the belief in equal opportunity. A March 2020 Pew Research Center report found that nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) believe the main reason some people are rich is because they have had more advantages in life than other people. Only a third said it was because they worked more than others.

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The second is the paradox of work. Work is becoming more and more all or nothing – you dedicate your life to work or give it up completely. Employers don’t just expect their employees to be available to answer emails or even take calls at all hours of the day and night. They link their salary to ever more accurately measured performance. Office workers’ days are filled with Zoom meetings and performance reviews. Amazon warehouse workers have time-limited bathroom visits. The faster the hamster wheel spins, the greater the temptation to jump.

Solving the first three of these paradoxes can be a Sisyphean task. But there are some encouraging signs that these problems are being addressed. The University of North Carolina recently voted to create a School of Civic Life and Leadership that will give voice to academics from across the political spectrum, including conservatives. Some Republicans are rethinking orthodox tax cuts and shrinking government, stressing instead the importance of jobs-based prosperity. More and more Americans are concerned about the size of their inherited wealth. However, a large-scale campaign to restore the work ethic will require an appetite for preaching that is rare and a willingness to work across political lines that has evaporated.

The only bright spot is the nature of the work. The Covid pandemic has had the unexpected effect of shaking workers out of ossified practices and unleashing the power of new technologies like Zoom. Companies are adopting a hybrid work system where workers cut their commute to two or three days a week and workers use their newfound flexibility to combine work with home duties. Hard evidence shows that this creates greater productivity and greater engagement. Instead of using the current wave of layoffs to tighten the organizational trenches, companies need to broaden and deepen this revolution.

Treat workers like responsible adults, not stray kids looking to get away or giddy teenagers excited by free beer and pizza. Use Zoom to reduce the need for business travel and travel to the office. Reduce the spread of encounters. Stop bombarding employees with unnecessary emails, especially from HR. Accept part-time jobs so older workers don’t have to choose between work and retirement.

The easiest way to start addressing America’s work ethic problem is to start making work itself more attractive.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Layoffs often make companies worse off: Sarah Green Carmichael

• What big cancellation? Workers remain in place: Justin Fox

• Big tech layoffs relieve Musk and Zuckerberg: Parmy Olson

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial team or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is a global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. The former Economist writer is most recently the author of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

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